The samurai were an elite military class of soldiers and officials. They were retained by feudal lords called daimyo from whose ranks rose many of the leaders, known as Shoguns, who effectively ruled Japan between 1192 and 1868.

Samurai armour fact file

Date

Early 19th century

Made in

Japan

Made from

Metal, papier-mache, lacquer, gold, silk

Museum reference

A.1905.184

Did you know?

The Japanese word samurai means 'one who serves'.

The way of the warrior

Samurai means ‘one who serves’, and members of the samurai caste followed a strict code of conduct known as bushido, or ‘the way of the warrior’.

Wearing the correct armour and carrying the right weapons were vital aspects of being a samurai.

Suit of Samurai armour

This splendid suit of armour dates from the early 19th century. By this time, Japan was a relatively peaceful country and armour was worn more for show than for practical reasons.

Made from black-lacquered iron plates tied together, the armour was flexible, allowing its wearer to move freely. The armoured skirt, called a kusazuri, shields the thighs, while the arm coverings combine protective chain mail with fine blue silk. The helmet, or kabuto, with its bristling moustache, was designed to strike fear into the enemy.

Samurai sword and tanto dagger

Above: Samurai swords and tanto dagger.

The samurai warrior typically carried two swords. Different styles were popular at different times, but during the Edo period (1600-1868) the long katana sword and shorter companion sword known as a wakizashi were most commonly worn. For formal ceremonial occasions, these were replaced with a slung sword or tachi and a dagger.

When the Emperor regained power in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, he began to issue laws to reduce the power and status of the samurai class. Samurai were no longer permitted to carry swords in public and a national army was established which conscripted men from across society.

A fascinating treasure

In this short film, students Alex, Gavin, Daniel and the pupils of Hermitage Park School tell us why they like this spectacular suit of Japanese armour. They think it looks like Darth Vader - do you?

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